In the Episcopal church of my childhood, there were no Christmas carols until Christmas Day. Corporate prayers during Advent reminded us that we were “sorely hindered by our sins.” The Book of Common Prayer suggests Mark 13:35-36 be read at the beginning of the service: “Watch ye, for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cock-crowing, or in the morning; lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping.” This was a solemn warning for people distracted by parties and Santa Clause. At least in church, Advent was a more somber time; we were looking forward to, not celebrating the birth of Christ…yet.
This was the way I learned to think about Advent: a season that reminds us that we are all still waiting.
Each year, I seem to get less and less excited about Christmas. Maybe it’s years of “doing Christmas.” Maybe it’s my people-pleasing nature. Whatever the reason, I seem to linger in the valley of seasonal stress. The lights and the carols and the scurrying around for presents seem out of step with the state of the world and the heaviness of the wait. In the end, all the lights will be taken down, there will be no more presents, and we will still be looking toward the heavens for His return. I feel it deeply–how we need our Rescuer to come and complete the story.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Have you ever paid attention to the mournful, haunting mood of this “Christmas carol”? There are no jingle bells here.
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.
In the Episcopal hymnal, this was an Advent song. A song for people who live in a very scary world and wait for freedom. And yet, after each of these sad verses, we are called to rejoice.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Yes. In fact, it is required of us.
“Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:14). “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12). In Scripture, rejoicing is an imperative. I cannot allow myself to wallow in what is hard. I have to find a path to the party.
In my life, finding the joy of the season looks like watching A Charlie Brown Christmas. It looks like reading Luke 1 and 2 over and over. It looks like listening to The Messiah while making dinner. I dig out the nativity scenes and the cookie cutters. I ask God for joy. If I believe that Jesus will come again, my wait, while wearisome, should have joy mingled with the longing. God promises blessing to me if I will do this. “Blessed are all who wait for him!” (Isaiah 30:18).
Here is what I’m learning about Advent: that while it is a season of waiting, it is also a season of promise. Jesus DID come once. And if He did that, Emmanuel SHALL come to thee. The lights we hang on houses and trees are a reminder that the TRUE light is coming, and there will be no need for even sun or moon because He will be so glorious. While the world may try to turn this season into an anxiety-producing, materialistic frenzy, Christians know that the weeks of pondering Christ’s birth are much, much more. We celebrate the future as well as the past. We are tasting of the final joy that will come. We are practicing for our celebration on that Wonderful Day.
In the Episcopal church of my childhood, every Christmas Day, the church gathered in the afternoon. Presents had been opened, special meals had been eaten, and it was now time to celebrate as a church. The wait was OVER! As children we truly looked forward to this church service, the one where we were allowed to come in our pajamas. Parishioners would yell out the page number of their favorite Christmas carol, and the organist would play and play until we had finally gotten our fill. Then we would sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. The wait was over. The baby Jesus had finally come—a seal on the promise that King Jesus would also return one day.
I pray that we all find our way to rejoicing this Advent season. Jesus is coming!